Lesley Riddoch: Let's rediscover cultural intimacy

A very unusual thing happened this weekend in a tiny, wood-panelled, corrugated-tin-clad village hall in the hills overlooking Loch Ness.

Barn, house by the fjord, mountains with snowy peaks behind, Kvaloya, Troms, Norway. Picture: Nordreisender/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

Fiddling supremo Adam Sutherland and Session A9 guitar man Mark Clement played to a packed hall without a sound system for the first time in years. The experience clearly felt so odd that local man Sutherland revealed feeling “a bit naked” facing an audience without the clutter of speakers, pedals and microphones that accompany the normal “plugged in” set.

Stand by as this new/old “bothy culture” sweeps Scotland adding a slow, small, local and intimate level of “home-made” entertainment to the cult of large, commercial, anonymous and rather hollow-feeling stadium gigs that have come to be our norm.

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The first “Bothy Culture” event in Abriachan Hall was part of the Architecture Fringe – a Scotland-wide festival organised by young Scots architects and artists. Architectural taxi rides were the highlight in Edinburgh, a debate on ‘Piss Poor Planning’ dominated the line-up in Glasgow and in Inverness, award-winning architects Dualchas led a discussion on The Highland House – asking what makes Highland cottages different from housing elsewhere at 570N in the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Latvia and Russia.

But the Abriachan event – although the most folksy event in the schedule – was perhaps also the most radical, aiming to kick off a Scotland-wide resurgence of village-hall, front-room, intimate musical and story-telling performances of the kind that were once the mainstay of Gaelic and Scots culture.

The Scots word ‘bothy’ comes from the Gaelic bothan (boh-han) which means ‘cottage’ or ‘hut.’ Like huts in the Nordic countries, these small buildings and shelters generally have no electricity, heating, baths, sinks, or running water. But unlike Nordic hytter, there are gey few left in Scotland. That’s mostly because Nordic huts are wooden, purpose-built huts which are individually owned, maintained and inherited. The Norwegians alone have 479,000 such huts for a population about the same size as Scotland. We have roughly 500 – the smallest number of wooden huts in any country at a wooded latitude.

This is the product of concentrated land ownership patterns which have long made the purchase or long-term rent of rural land next to impossible. Monolithic ownership of most Scots woodland by the Forestry Commission Scotland has been another factor – FCS used to regard a good forest as a safely locked-up forest with public access limited to occasional and strictly daily excursions.

The One Thousand Huts Campaign has started to change this outlook – a pilot site for 13 huts is being established at a Forestry Commission Site at Saline in Fife, planning and building regulations have been altered to recognise a “hut” which should mean new structures will not have to obtain so many building warrants.

But none of this provides the key ingredient – affordable land to buy or rent on a secure long-term lease.

That’s why Scotland still doesn’t have the individual huts that pepper every Nordic and Baltic coastline. What we do have are memories of bothy culture.

Mountain bothies made of stone/wood were for shepherds and drovers (na drobhairean). Lowland bothies or chaumers provided accommodation for unmarried farm labourers in the North-east of Scotland. Very often though, married men spent their whole working lives there too – separated from their families because landowners were unwilling to give them land for family cottages. But these small, very basic buildings housed a rich culture as ‘bothy loons’ sang ‘bothy ballads’ in Scots Doric – mirrored by shielings (bothan airigh) which formed a summer base for women and girls looking after livestock in summer pastures. Over the centuries all these small huts offered places for communion, companionship and creative song-writing and storytelling.

Never have we had greater need of such easy cultural sources of authenticity, intimacy and reassurance.

First footing, household ceilidhs, bothy ballads are bits of Scotland’s communal culture which worked because they were small-scale. No sound systems were available, or necessary. Musicians developed more than musical skills – without a stage and a large audience they learned to tell stories between songs and retuning instruments. As a result, the craic is probably the most distinctive aspect of Celtic performance and musicianship.

Yet the contemporary emphasis on commercial events with huge scale and awe-inspiring electronic delivery has almost swept Scotland’s precious acoustic heritage away. Almost – but not quite.

Burns Nights are the most impressive example of the Scots enduring capacity to organise thousands of small events which together create one big living cultural tradition. Ironically though, it’s the big, posh, city-centre, celebrity-studded “black tie” suppers (where haggis is relegated to the starter and the Bard would unquestionably be barred) which grab the attention. Perhaps that’s a function of Glasgow’s “Miles Better” years and the city’s subsequent fixation with size. Perhaps it’s a function of the ever-increasing scale of governance where Scotland’s so-called “local authorities” are easily the largest in the developed world.

Whatever the reason, our public world is too often a distancing, anonymising, un-engaging, and faceless bureaucracy when what people need most in a world of automation, social media and inevitable time on computers is exactly the opposite. We need engagement, comfort, connection and coorying in – what the Danes call hygge – and that happens best in small local venues.

In the same way our once-nourishing diet has worsened over centuries through urban poverty, distance from the land and the empty “convenience” of processed food, so a processed musical and dramatic culture has supplanted the more relaxed moments of communion created by local people sharing knowledge and expertise.

It’s a matter of huge regret that my step- children have simply never known the joy of a traditional Hogmanay spent first-
footing neighbours, singing and talking nonsense – without the need to buy tickets, walk for miles to a rain-sodden city centre to become part of a big, soulless commercial event.

As vinyl makes a comeback, the time for reassessing human formats has also arrived. And Scotland is perfectly placed to be the land that first rediscovers the power of cultural intimacy – primarily for ourselves but also for visitors pouring into the Highlands and Islands in pursuit of the authentic experience we used to do so well.

So well done the Bothy Culture pioneers. Let’s have much more.